Meat is a valuable nutritious food that if untreated will spoil within a few days. However, there
are a number of preservation techniques that can be used at a small scale to extend its shelf life
by several days, weeks or months. Some of these processing methods also alter the flavour and
texture of meat, which can increase its value when these products are sold. This Technical Brief
gives an overview of the types of cured meat products that are possible to produce at a small
scale of operation. It does not include sausages, burgers, pâtés and other ground meat products.
These are more difficult to produce at a small scale because of the higher costs of equipment
and the specialist technical knowledge required, or because they pose a greater risk of causing
Spoilage, food poisoning and preservation
Meat can support the growth of both bacteria and contaminating insects and parasites. It is a
low-acid food, and if meat is not properly processed or if it is contaminated after processing,
bacteria can spoil it and make it unacceptable for sale. Dangerous bacteria can also grow on the
meat and cause food poisoning. All types of meat processing therefore need careful control over
the processing conditions and good hygiene precautions to make sure that products are both safe
to eat and have the required shelf life. Processors must pay strict attention to hygiene and
sanitation throughout the processing and distribution of meat products. These precautions are
described below and also in Technical Brief: Hygiene and safety rules in food processing.
‘Curing’ is the treatment of meat with preservative chemicals that restrict or prevent the growth
of spoilage bacteria and food poisoning bacteria. It is used together with processes that use heat,
smoke or low temperatures to give the required shelf life of cured meats. The principles of
preservation of cured meats are:
1. The use of preservative chemicals: either salt, chemicals in smoke and/or sodium
2. Reducing the water content of meat by drying and/or smoking.
3. Reducing the temperature by chilling to around 5 oC.
4. Heat from smoking - the effects of heat from the smoke and chemicals in the smoke
combine to preserve the meat. Smoke also adds distinctive and attractive flavours to
the meat, which can increase its value.
Curing is achieved by either rubbing salt and other preservative chemicals into the meat (salting)
or by soaking meat in a solution of these chemicals (brining). Depending on the process, the shelf
life of cured meats is increased by several days (e.g. bacon) to several months (e.g. dried meats).
Building and facilities required
It is important that a suitable room is used only for processing meat products. The room should
be hygienically designed and easily cleaned to prevent contamination of products by insects,
birds, rodents and micro-organisms. This requires attention to the design and construction
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Cured Meat Products
materials to ensure that all surfaces are easily cleaned and have no cracks that could harbour
grease, dirt or insects. All internal walls should ideally be clad with plastic laminated boards that
can be easily cleaned (and may be a legal requirement if meat products are to be exported). If
cladding is not available, walls should be plastered or rendered with concrete and the lower parts
tiled to at least 1.5 metres above the floor. Higher parts of walls can be painted with good
quality gloss paint if tiling is too expensive.
The floor should be tiled with non-slip terrazzo floor tiles. Because meat processing involves
using a lot of water, the floor should slope to a drain to prevent pools of stagnant water forming,
which would allow insects and micro-organisms to breed. The drainage channel should be
covered with a metal grating that can be removed to clean the drain. A wire mesh cover should
be fitted over the drain exit to prevent rodents and crawling insects getting into the building
through the drain. This should also be easily removed for cleaning.
Opening windows should be screened with mosquito
mesh. Thin metal chains or strips of plastic can be hung
from door lintels to deter flying insects, or alternatively,
mesh door screens can be fitted. A panelled ceiling
should be fitted rather than exposed roof beams, which
would allow dust to accumulate that might contaminate
products. There should be no holes in the ceiling or roof,
and no gaps where the roof joins the walls, which would
allow birds and insects to enter. One or more insect
‘electrocutors’ (Fig. 1) should be hung from the ceiling in
the processing room.
Figure 1: Insect electrocutor.
Photo from Actron Inc
An adequate supply of clean water (of drinking quality)
should be available from taps in the processing room. Hosepipes with pistol-grip adjustable
sprays should ideally be used for washing down floors and equipment. If necessary, water should
be treated to remove bacteria. The cheapest and easiest way is to use bleach (also known as
‘chlorine solution’ or ‘hypochlorite’), which is cheap and effective against a wide range of microorganisms. Water for cleaning should contain about 200ppm (mg/litre) of chlorine, made by
mixing 1 litre of bleach into 250 litres of water. Commercial treatment units that use ultra-violet
light to destroy micro-organisms in water are suitable for larger-scale processors that use a lot of
Meat processing produces both solid and liquid wastes that contain fat and blood, both of which
are highly polluting if not treated properly. Processors should consult local health authorities
when designing the meat processing room to find out whether special on-site treatment of wastes
is required before disposing of them in municipal drains. If mains drainage is not available, it is
necessary to construct treatment facilities to prevent wastes becoming a breeding ground for
insects or causing pollution of local water supplies. The room should have adequate lighting for
safe operation of equipment. There should be adequate power supplies to operate electrical
equipment. Because meat processing requires refrigerators and/or freezers, it is important that
the power supply is reliable, and in areas where power interruptions are likely, it is necessary to
have a backup generator that starts automatically when the power fails.
All meat processing equipment should be designed and constructed so that it can be easily
cleaned. Mixing bowls, tanks etc. should have a smooth internal surface without corners, and all
welds should be ground to a smooth finish. Ideally, all equipment should be made from stainless
steel, but alternatives include polished aluminium, or food grade plastic for containers and
equipment that are not heated. Mild steel cannot be used because it will rust and contaminate
products, and brass, iron or copper cannot be used because they promote rancidity of fats in
Cured Meat Products
The layout of equipment within the room should allow food to move between different stages in a
process without the paths crossing. This reduces the risk of contaminating finished products
with raw meat. There should also be sufficient room behind equipment for cleaning. The layout
of the processing room should take the following principles into account:
Incoming meat should be placed in a refrigerator or cold store at below 5 oC, or in a freezer.
This equipment should not be used to store finished products or any other materials.
There should be physical separation between areas that are used to prepare meat (e.g.
boning, filleting etc.) and subsequent processing.
Smoking, cooking or drying stages should be carried out in a separate room to prevent
steam or smoke from entering the main processing area.
Separate rooms or cupboards should be used to store dry ingredients, packaging materials
and cleaning chemicals.
Dried or smoked products should be stored in a cool area that is well-ventilated and
protected from insects and sunlight. Other products should be stored in a refrigerator or
cold store at around 5oC, which is not used to store anything else.
Changing rooms, toilets and showers should be separated from the processing room by at
least two doors.
An example of the layout of a meat processing room is shown in Fig. 2.
Figure 2: Layout of a meat processing room
Because meat has a high risk of causing food poisoning, it is essential that processors pay great
attention to the quality of the meat that they buy. Two types of danger exist: 1) infections from
the living animal that are carried by the meat or infectious organisms such as parasites that grow
in the meat; and 2) infections caused by contamination of the meat after slaughter. A qualified
person should inspect animal carcasses to ensure that the meat is free of disease. Contamination
of meat in the abattoir can come from contact with animal faeces, poor quality water, dirty
equipment and poor hygiene by abattoir workers. To ensure that good quality meat is used,
processors should only buy it from reputable farmers or suppliers, and not rely on local street
markets or middlemen. Further details of hygiene and correct management in abattoirs is given
in Guidelines on Small Slaughterhouses and Meat Hygiene for Developing Countries.
The level of quality assurance in meat processing depends on the risk associated with the
particular product, and this is assessed by risk (or hazard) analysis using the HACCP (Hazard
Analysis Critical Control Point) system. Meat processors should carry out a hazard analysis for
each of their products (details are given in How to HACCP). In summary, meat products are low-,
medium- or high-risk foods as follows:
Low-risk meat products:
Medium-risk meat products:
High-risk meat products:
Biltong and similar cured, dried meats, smoked meats, bacon.
Sausages and other ground meat products
(eg.beefburgers, pâtés), cooked hams.
Cured Meat Products
Cured, dried and smoked meat products are each suitable for small-scale production, provided
that careful attention is paid to hygiene, whereas ground meat and uncured meat products
require greater expertise and care, and these are not included in this Technical Brief.
Cleaning and sanitation
Good hygiene and sanitation is essential in all types of meat processing. Bacteria can rapidly
spoil meat if processing is not done quickly and properly and it is essential that hygienic food
handling is carried out with these products. In general inexperienced people should not process
meats and training in hygienic food handling should be given (e.g. by a local Bureau of
Standards) to all staff to minimise risks associated with these products.
Equipment should be thoroughly cleaned after each day’s production, using a cleaning schedule
that indicates which equipment is to be cleaned, who is responsible for cleaning it, how it should
be cleaned, and who is responsible for checking that cleaning has been done properly. All
equipment should be washed with hot water and a detergent that is recommended for use with
meat products, then a disinfectant (or sanitiser) and then rinsed with chlorinated water.
Equipment and surfaces should be allowed to dry in the air, because wiping with cloths can recontaminate them. If they are available, brushes with coloured bristles are preferred because the
coloured material can be seen easily if it is lost in machinery or in the product. At the end of a
working day, a slight ‘chlorine’ odour in the processing room indicates that it has been properly
cleaned. A summary of guidelines on hygiene and sanitation is given in Technical Brief: Hygiene
and safety rules in food processing.
In most countries, the legislation for processing meats is more stringent than for many other
types of food. In addition to general regulations that govern labelling, weights and measures and
hygiene when handling foods, special regulations may govern the manufacture and sale of meat
products. There may also be legal limits on the amount of sodium nitrate/nitrite in the final
products (typically 250 -500 mg/kg (ppm) of sodium nitrate and 150 - 200 mg/kg (ppm) of
sodium nitrite). Meat processors should contact the responsible Ministry for copies of national
regulations related to their products, and if necessary get advice from a university food science
department or Bureau of Standards to clarify what the regulations mean. They should also obtain
a Health Permit from the Ministry of Health or Local Authority that licenses the premises for
food production, obtain a Manufacturing Licence from the Local Authority or Ministry of
Industry, and obtain Medical Certificates from the Health Authority to certify that all workers are
fit to handle food.
Methods of processing
The main methods used to process cured meats at a small-scale are as follows:
Curing followed by chilling or cool storage (e.g. ham/salted pork, bacon).
Curing and drying (e.g. biltong).
Curing and smoking (e.g. smoked bacon or smoked pork).
1) Curing: Salted Meats
A traditional method of salting meats such as pork, beef or chicken is to cut the meat into pieces,
dip them in a saturated salt solution (to make a saturated solution, add salt until some crystals
do not dissolve). Then press the pieces to remove excess water. The pieces are then rubbed with
dry salt, wrapped tightly in cloth that is tied tightly with rope and hung in the air to allow water to
drip away. The salted meat is partly dried and has a high salt content, both of which act as
preservatives. It is cooked before consumption after thoroughly washing out the salt. The product
can be kept for about a month before a rancid taste develops. An alternative method is to pack
the salted meat into covered drums. Initially the meat may need to be weighed down, but after
about 7 days, meat juices are released and form a strong brine in which the meat is submerged.
Salt levels are 12 - 18% in the final product and it can be preserved for up to 3 - 4 months
under ambient conditions. After this, fat oxidation causes rancid off-flavours.
Cured Meat Products
1) Curing: Bacon and Ham
Bacon is made from the back, belly and loin cuts of pork, whereas ham and gammon are made
from the front or hind quarters. The meat is cured either by dry-salting or in brine. It can be
unsmoked or smoked and is usually refrigerated for retail sales. Dry-salting is less common, but
involves rubbing fine salt onto the surface of the meat repeatedly over several weeks to make
ham. Alternatively, pieces of meat can be ‘tumbled’ with the salt mixture in a tumbling machine
that is similar to a butter churn (see Technical Brief: Butter and Ghee). Typically this would be
for 30 - 60 mins every 24 hours or for 5 -10 mins every 8 hours.
The simplest method of brine curing involves placing deboned cuts of pork so that they are fully
submerged in a tank of refrigerated brine (below 5oC) for five days, turning them occasionally.
The brining tank should be constructed from stainless steel, food-grade plastic or concrete lined
with ceramic tiles and waterproof grouting. The brine typically contains 25 kg salt, 3 kg sodium
nitrate and 50g sodium nitrite per 100 litres of water. Ham and ‘sweet-cure’ bacon brines may
also contain sugar, and other specialist brines may contain a variety of herbs and spices,
including juniper berries, nutmeg, cloves, peppercorns, rosemary or bay leaves. Further details
are given in Opportunities in food processing.
The brine causes water to pass out of the meat and as a
result the strength of the brine falls as it becomes more
diluted. The strength is checked daily using a ‘salometer’
(see QA below), and curing salts are added to maintain the
brine strength. Once curing is completed, the brine should be
discarded and a new batch prepared for the next meat.
More rapid curing can be achieved by injecting the meat with
brine before tank curing. This brine is slightly stronger and
contains 30 kg salt per 100 litres of water and the same
amount of sodium nitrite/nitrate as tank brine. The meat
should be injected in about 20 places, deep into the meat,
which causes the meat to increase in weight by 8 -10%. At
larger scales of operation an electric injection pump (Fig. 3)
that has 5 - 10 needles can be used. After injecting the
brine, the meat is cured in a tank as above.
After curing, the meat is allowed to dry and mature under
refrigeration at below 5oC for approximately 5 - 7 days.
The humidity in the room should be kept at
approximately 85% by keeping the floor wet with
saturated brine (not water) at all times (saturated brine
gives an air humidity of 75%). Bacon is then sliced to
the required thickness using a manual or electric meat
slicer (Fig. 4.). It can be wrapped in greaseproof paper if
it is sold quickly, or sealed in either plastic bags or
plastic trays with heat-sealed plastic covers. It is stored
under refrigeration for retail display for about 2 -3 weeks.
Vacuum packing extends the shelf life further, but
vacuum packing machines are expensive to buy and to
maintain, and they are only suitable for processors that
can justify the expense with high levels of profitability.
Figure 3: Brine injection
needles. Photo from Cyborg
Figure 4: Bacon Slicer. Photo
Cured hams are cooked by either roasting, or by boiling
in sealed plastic pouches. The internal temperature should reach at least 70 oC, with the cooking
time approximately one hour for each kg in weight of ham. They are then sliced and packaged in
a similar way to bacon. NB: because cooked ham is eaten without further cooking, it is essential
that strict hygiene is enforced to prevent contamination of the meat after cooking. This is
therefore a product that should only be produced by experienced meat processors.